Caught in the Middle

RABBI JIM ROGOZEN offers some suggestions to keep teenagers engaged in the seder

by Rabbi Jim Rogozen

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We’re great with the little kids, but how do we engage teens at the Passover Seder?

USY_teens

If someone from another planet were to visit Jewish homes on the first two nights of Passover, they might conclude that they were witnessing an elaborate ritual aimed only at the youngest people present. Indeed, the Mishnah describes a series of food-related prompts during the seder that encourage adults to teach their children about Yetziat Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt, and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. If we were to tally the number of interactions between the seder leader and those around the table, the youngest children easilywould come in first, while adult-to-adult conversation would place a distant second.

But this focus on young children, while fun, can serve to disengage an important part of our community – teens. The same children who were in the spotlight during their early years, flawlessly singing the Four Questions, can easily become bored and check out of the seder as they grow older. We must remember that they, too, are the children referred to in the Mishnah. They just have different needs than their younger siblings.

Jim Rogozen

Good teachers anticipate the variety of responses students will have to their lessons. In fact, the more they understand their students, the better they can figure out how to meet their needs. That’s why it’s important to know some of the social-emotional- educational characteristics of the teens sitting at our seder tables. Among other things, adolescents crave more independence, and are in the process of transferring their loyalty from family to peers and forming an identity separate from their families. They need privacy. They may have frequent mood swings and problems with self-esteem, even while capable of great passion and deep emotions. Teens seek more responsibility and new experiences, and are inclined to experimentation and taking risks. Educationally, they are moving from concrete to abstract thinking.

Of course no one exhibits these characteristics in a consistent pattern, nor does this stage of development occur in a linear process, which makes living with a teenager somewhat unpredictable, yet always exciting. With that in mind, what can we do to make the seder a meaningful experience for our teens?

I offer a few suggestions.

Welcome them to the seder:

  • Acknowledge that they are not little kids anymore
  • Let them know they have a lot to teach others
  • Tell them that their questions are welcome
  • Let them know that they are welcome to take time out if they want
  • Ask in advance what they are comfortable leading/singing/reading. This might best be done in private.

Think through how to handle the Four Sons. Most haggadot portray the second son (the rasha – wicked one) as a teenager! Adults tend to joke about the teenage years; teenagers don’t find this funny at all.

Ask teens to teach something to younger children at the table. You’ll be fascinated to hear what they’ve picked up over the years, and how they translate seder concepts. If they are involved in USY or Ramah they probably have some new songs and melodies to share.

Use some of the major events of the teenage years (bar/bat mitzvah, obtaining a driver’s license, extending curfew) to explore the intersection of freedom with responsibility.

Encourage adults to interact with teens in authentic, genuine ways. Asking questions and being a good listener show that you value their presence and their opinion. If they teach you something new, thank them!

Show them that their presence at the seder matters. When little children need to leave the table for a while, don’t automatically assign the teens as babysitters.

Create a context in which teens feel welcome and valued. When they recite the words, “In every generation each person must feel as if s/he went out of Egypt,” teens should feel that they were redeemed, that they count, that they matter. What a grand boost for their self-esteem and evolving Jewish identity for them to see themselves as an important part of the Jewish community. This year at Pesach, let’s put our teens back in the spotlight.

Rabbi Jim Rogozen is the Chief Learning Officer at United Synagogue.